Women of Conscience: On Alice Mattison
By Leena Soman Navani •
Alice Mattison has published a poetry collection, seven novels, four short story collections, and a book about writing fiction. She began her writing career more than five decades ago. Professionally, perhaps the only thing more impressive than Mattison’s writing is her legacy as a mentor. There is some debate, still, about whether writing can be taught. But certainly, it must count for something, maybe even everything, for a new or emerging artist to feel seen, to feel believed in by someone who has done what she hopes to do.
I worked with Mattison in the spring of 2017 in Bennington’s low residency MFA program, where she has been teaching for more than twenty years. I was doubting myself and, like so many, the importance of writing when the world is burning. In one of her first letters to me after Trump’s inauguration, she wrote, “this kind of exchange—the two of us thinking together about how to make ideas clear, how to find words for feelings—feels like a rebellion against the terrible things happening in our country. So thank you.” One month later, when I was certain one of my stories was worthless, she wrote, “There is nothing silly about this. I can’t tell you how wholeheartedly I admire it…I’m learning from you. Trust yourself, trust me.” I have never encountered a teacher so in love with teaching, so invested in the process of figuring out how to muster up whatever it takes to write what must be written.
In 2016 Mattison published her first nonfiction book, The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control. Like her teaching, what separates it from other “classic” reference texts for creative writers is her insistence that many more stories belong in the world than the ones currently being told; this is the cornerstone of her commitment to craft. Mattison speaks directly to the silences, to what often remains unspoken still, in regard to inequities in literature and publishing:
The women I teach are literate, of course, and often have been encouraged to write. Whatever their circumstances, they have found the time and money to attend the program in which we meet. Yet—and here is where they differ from most men I’ve taught, and resemble my grandmother—they sometimes don’t seem to believe they ought to write, as if writing were self-indulgent. It seems to me that when a female writer’s mother gets sick, the woman thinks she should stop writing and go look after her mother. When a male writer’s mother gets sick, he thinks he should work harder than ever, sell a story to The New Yorker, and earn money to buy medicine for his mother.
Kite is a book about craft and the writing life for all aspiring writers, but Mattison is particularly concerned with women—as writers and as subjects. She writes:
I want novels and memoirs about women who have a passion for work…I want these women to be morally complex and interesting, and I want them to do good and harm, to improve or wreck their lives and other people’s. Now that women are politicians, doctors, military officers, judges, journalists, and cops, in life we have far more opportunity than Isabel Archer to do harm and good. Yet I find it surprisingly difficult to find and write and advise others in the writing of serious books that show women leading full, demanding lives that affect others, and not just their lovers and families.
With her latest novel, Conscience, Mattison has written the serious book she sought. Olive Grossman, the protagonist, is procrastinating on writing an essay. This isn’t what the novel is about, of course, but does clue us into what Mattison is up to in this complex interrogation of and tribute to the power of narrative. Olive’s essay is about a book written decades earlier by one of her friends, Val, that is being re-issued. Val’s novel is about a mutual friend, Helen, who was a committed activist in the Vietnam War era. This story about passionate, morally complex, interesting women is told from three points of view: Olive, her husband Griff, who was also an activist and is now a community leader, and Jean, the director of an organization that serves New Haven’s homeless.
Olive and Griff’s marriage is troubled. They obsess over a separation that happened years ago, but which remains the touchstone they return to again and again, partly because their past is not past. Griff never read Val’s novel, but on the occasion of its reissuing, he delves in, leading to a renewed crisis of faith, or more apt, lack of faith. Meantime, Griff becomes the president of the board of Jean’s nonprofit, but is at odds with her leadership. All the while, a friendship between Jean and Olive, two ambitious, alienated women, blooms.
Olive details her early life, including her close friendship with Helen, her own activism against the Vietnam War as she came of age, and how she fell for Griff. Indeed, so much of the book’s charm is in its exploration of storytelling. The book begins with Olive’s words:
Life—make no mistake—is not a story. Naturally, I could think of parts of my life as stories if I reordered and changed them, putting more stress here, less there. But I’d be distorting them. Paying close attention to my own history, I’ve learned, leads to trouble, confusion, and anxiety. I will never write a memoir… A story I did not seek but have found myself silently recounting—in the shower, on a walk—began, I think, on a Wednesday morning in late February, a few years ago.
Everything in the novel turns on when, how, and why a story was remembered and relayed from one character to another. To be more specific would be to spoil Mattison’s intricate construction, but the project of nested narratives enables a marvelous examination of the complexities of creative license, and the consequences of both confidence and self-doubt.
This structure is intense, but spellbinding. In the final fifty pages, there is no mystery to be solved per se, but the way Olive narrates the story is remarkable. A mature woman—“almost old,” as Olive says of herself—reflecting and saying, with insight, look at what a glorious mess I made and continue to make, is a thrill to read. The ending is a proper reckoning with the constellation of issues at hand. The reader is spared a coy or wishy-washy non-ending that’s meant to “allow the reader to draw her own conclusions,” but is really just an unearned non-decision. Conscience’s closing is utterly satisfying.
Conscience centers women, in particular Olive and Helen’s diverging coming of age as peace advocates. As Mattison notes in Kite, there is not enough writing about women who talk about and feel deeply about men and sex, and also politics and the issues of the day. Writers, often white writers, fear (and then tell the rest of us to fear) being heavy-handed or didactic. There is not enough fiction about women who are flawed, not because they have affairs or behave badly, which they do, but because they are sincere in wanting to balance their progressive beliefs against a culture that would rather topple them. Mattison’s characters are curious, about identity, and economic and social justice, and about their own anxieties and insecurities related to their bodies, appetites, clothes, make up, hair, and sexuality. These are not mutually exclusive sets of concerns.
Likewise, it is not a question of craft or content: Mattison shows us that we can revel in both. Like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Conscience demonstrates that the marriage of craft and content, that women writing stories about women creating and living lives of meaning, can be a happy one. The friendship between Olive and Helen is rich with tension as they grow together and apart. “I wanted to take care of her,” Olive says, after Helen’s ankle breaks during a protest where police beat her. “If I could no longer be close to her through talk and shared thought, I wanted to help her to the toilet, to wash her hair, to wash her belly and breasts. You will say it was a sexual wish, and of course that’s so, but it was more a wish for the physical. I wanted anything that was Helen’s, and her body was part of anything.”
Helen commits herself to radical politics, while Olive pursues the liberal arts and asks what it means to find refuge in the writing life. Can it be the work, or is it a way to opt out, to let others do the hard work of resistance? But if that’s the case, where does it end? Which should be background and which foreground, if one seeks a worthwhile life? These are the questions Mattison’s characters wrestle with, and with which we must wrestle. What does writing books and essays about books matter when children are being detained and abused by our government in our name? Can reading and writing, especially fiction, be part of creating lasting change?
Olive says, “Reading novels meant ignoring the big stuff, even if the great books I read were about the big stuff.” But she didn’t ignore the big stuff. While her boundaries ultimately differed from Helen and Griff’s, she did what she could. And if doing what one can isn’t enough, then what is and who is the judge? I would argue that Conscience tries and does make change. In Kite, Mattison writes, “Honor the work. It’s a matter of believing—or pretending to believe, even when you don’t—that you have the right to write, even if so far you haven’t proved that the world needs your stories.” Conscience is a novel about the big stuff that proves that women like her, like me, like so many of us, can be the center of the story—must be, because the question of our bodies and minds have always been at the center of political life. Right now, some of us in the world need its story, and we must believe that future generations will need ours.
LEENA SOMAN NAVANI writes poetry, fiction, and criticism, and her writing has been featured with Ploughshares and Kenyon Review among other publications. For her work across genres, she’s received support from the National Book Critics Circle, Catapult, Brooklyn Poets, BOAAT, Bread Loaf, the Visible Poetry Project, and the Bennington Writing Seminars, where she earned her MFA.